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Review: The Right Stuff

The Right Stuff

[originally published in The Weekly, November 9, 1983]

The Right Stuff is the biggest, brightest, busiest movie of the year, exhilarating in its largeness of spirit, in the sheer physical scope of its achievement, and in the breadth and complexity of its ambitions. It’s also an exasperatingly difficult film to review, for its strengths and weaknesses frequently lie side-by-each, and although the former far outweigh the latter, both must be acknowledged.

Anyone setting out to make a film from Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff faces an awesome challenge: how to take 16 years’ worth of aviation history teeming with event, detail, character, and information, and shape it into a coherent, let alone an engrossing, movie. In this, writer-director Philip Kaufman has stunningly succeeded. Against all odds, unintimidated by the shifting currents of history and changing fashions in American heroism, his Right Stuff rushes along a breathlessly clear narrative line for 3 hours and 13 minutes. It’s a joyride with substance, the sort of experience that leaves even classy kiddie-kar entertainments like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Return of the Jedi looking trivial by comparison.

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“Fighting Mad”: Peter Fonda is Jonathan Demme’s eco-warrior

Action Packed Double Feature: Fighting Mad/Moving Violation (Shout! Factory)

Jonathan Demme wrote and directed Fighting Mad (1976), his third feature, for producer Roger Corman but it was actually produced for 20th Century Fox, which makes the film his studio debut. It’s not his best film by far but this mix of vigilante/revenge movie and eco-conscious stand against corruption makes for an inspired twist on a familiar genre. Peter Fonda is an easy-going Arkansas framer who stands up to the corporate criminal who has his thugs intimidate, harass and murder local landowners who refuse to sell out to his strip-mining concern. They kill his brother (Scott Glenn, gone way too soon from a film that could use his understated strength) and pregnant sister-in-law and murder an inconvenient state judge who gets in the way of their agenda and the drawling sheriff seems to be in the back pocket of the corporation as he backs their rights to plunder the land of local farmer.

The sheriff’s position is supposed to be more complicated than that, which is one of the failings of the script and the direction. Fighting Mad manages to embrace a fairly radical hero (Fonda’s response to the corporate mafia violence has echoes of radical eco-warriors) and evoke resonant conflicts over land management and natural resource exploitation without really taking a stand. Demme switches up from the overheated melodrama and B-movie energy of his first films for the small town atmosphere of rural pace of life, which he isn’t always able to wrench into action-thriller tension, and Fonda plays his part somewhere between enlightened nature boy back from the big city and counterculture idealist with survivalist skills and no compunction about putting them to use. When they almost kill his gruffly lovable father (stalwart westerns veteran John Doucette), he goes after the coal syndicate with his hunting bow and goes all Leatherstocking on the corporate baddy’s bodyguard thugs. Fonda never dredges up a palpable fury to match his righteous indignation, but he does offer a different kind of moral spine in rural culture polluted by corruption. Cult actress Lynn Lowry plays the love interest in a film that sidesteps the issue of Fonda’s marriage status (maybe separated, certainly not divorced but acting very much the single father).

Demme and Corman, colleagues, friends and old hands at teaming up for commentary tracks, are joined for this newly-recorded commentary by Lynn Lowry and, about 118 minutes in, Peter Fonda. They don’t bother to introduce themselves (and it’s easy to tell them apart), they simply launch into production stories. Demme explains that it was Corman’s idea to make a “redneck revenge picture” (in the spirit of Walking Tall and Billy Jack) and suggested building it around the issue of strip mining, a reminder that Corman that was both politically left and business savvy, and points out that Monte Hellman helped out (uncredited) in the editing of a key sequence that plays out with a documentary quality.

The double-feature disc is paired with the 1976 Moving Violation, another thriller of small town corruption, this own starring Stephen McHattie as a drifter and Kay Lenz as a waitress who go on the run after witnessing the local lawmen murder someone. Will Geer and Eddie Albert co-star and the film features commentary by director Charles S. Dubin, producer Julie Corman, executive producer Roger Corman and star Stephen McHattie.